Ahiled eyes a bowl of magenta hair dye on the table in front of her. The chemical smells of detergent and hair dye fill the air of the Roger Park laundry room that Ahiled and her friends have turned into a makeshift beauty salon.
The teenager was hoping for a deep purple in honor of her favorite singer, Olivia Rodrigo. Purple is the pop star’s signature color, and this raspberry hue is all wrong. But Ahiled doesn’t have time to pivot. In less than 24 hours, the Venezuelan teen will sing for the first time in front of the students at her American high school.
Ahiled enrolled at Chicago’s Sullivan High School last year in an early wave of migrant students. Now, the Rogers Park high school, which has long been a front door for refugees and immigrants, has more than 70 Venezuelan migrants who fill the classrooms. Many of them live in city shelters, speak little English and missed months — sometimes years — of school while fleeing their home country and making the journey to the United States. “It’s so hard to leave your home and your culture,” reflects the 18-year-old senior. “I really miss my country.”
But at Sullivan, Ahiled and her Venezuelan classmates can just be teens. They flirt and tease. They record TikTok dances. And they take American traditions like an annual fall concert and imbue it with sounds of Venezuela as a way to connect their old life and new.
With the concert a day away, Ahiled looks back at the bowl of dye as her friend swirls the bright-colored mixture. She runs her fingers across her long, curly brown hair and moans with despair.
“That is not the color on the box,” she says, shaking her head. “It was supposed to be purple and it’s pink.” Her friend takes a section of Ahiled’s hair and swipes on the first coat of dye. There’s no turning back now.
In the key of Olivia Rodrigo
One of the first people Ahiled met when at Sullivan was social worker Josh Zepeda. The two bonded over music. (Zepeda moonlights as a DJ and musician under the stage name Sunkissed Kid). Zepeda urged Ahiled to join the school rock band, and encouraged other Venezuelan students, like her friends Luis and Antony, to get involved too.
The two also connected through talk therapy, an intervention that Ahiled found so powerful that she now hopes to pursue a college degree in social work. (WBEZ agreed to withhold the students’ last names due to the precarious nature of their immigration status).
In harder moments, Ahiled also listens to Olivia Rodrigo — who the high school senior just calls Olivia — to buoy herself. Lately, she’s been playing the bittersweet “Teenage Dream” a lot.
They all say that it gets better
It gets better the more you grow
Yeah, they all say that it gets better
It gets better, but what if I don’t?
“The song talks about when you’re growing up and how everyone tells you hey, you need to enjoy your life,” says Ahiled. “But you don’t always feel like you’re enjoying your life.”
Ahiled imagines those lines resonate with a lot of high schoolers. This fall, the number of newly enrolled English learners more than doubled in Chicago’s public schools compared to last year.
When more migrant students started to arrive at Sullivan, Zepeda enlisted Ahiled as a student guide, or someone to help introduce new students to the rhythms of American high school. That included everything from showing newcomers the cafeteria, to helping collect winter coats and boots, to serving as a translator and offering an ear when they felt overwhelmed.
“The advice I always tell them is to just try to do the best because we are here, and we are representing Venezuela,” says Ahiled.
Perhaps it’s no coincidence that many students turn to music as a form of expression. Venezuela has a strong musical tradition including El Sistema (the system), a national training program that aimed to help young people out of poverty through music education. El Sistema, which was started in 1975 and was championed by former president Hugo Chávez, trained thousands of students across the country and counts Los Angeles Philharmonic music director Gustavo Dudamel among its alumni.
In Chicago, Zepeda also uses music to help students feel at home. And a Latinx heritage concert is a fitting opportunity. “Having cultural-themed assemblies is a great way to get migrant youth involved in school,” says Zepeda. “It makes people feel like they are a part of something.”
Ahiled was one of the first students to volunteer to perform at the school show — “singing for me is how I tell my story,” she says — and she recruited Luis and Antony. Together, the trio chose to mash-up the pop hit No Se Va, by the popular Colombian group Morat, and a 2010 tune Mi Niña Bonita by Venezuelan band Chino & Nacho.
“We chose these songs because Venezuelans are always getting over obstacles,” says Ahiled. “We’re showing that no matter what happens to us, we’re happy to be here.”
For Luis, a 17-year-old junior who sings alongside Ahiled in the mash-up, the performance also connects him to a long-held family tradition. “Music is something that’s been passed down from one generation to another in my family,” says Luis in Spanish as Zepeda translates. “I started singing when I was 4 years old.”
Luis’s earliest memories include singing with his grandfather, a well-known performer of Llaneras, traditional Venezuelan folk songs. Luis can still recall the first song his grandfather ever taught him, one that tells the story of a father who gives his son a horse. Llanera songs are rarely transcribed, but Luis can still recite this one by memory. “I don’t think I’ll ever forget that song.”
Luis says the group considered singing an older, more traditional song, but they landed on two they felt would best connect with their classmates. That’s also why they asked 17-year-old Antony, who is also Venezuelan, to rap a verse. “Anyone who is going through what we’re going through,” says Antony. “I just want to wish them the best.”
Zepeda says a lot of Sullivan’s Venezuelan students are similarly altruistic. “These kids are unbelievable,” reflects Zepeda. “Once they get settled in, they start asking, how can I help the next kid who’s coming here? And that is something that has just floored me and amazed me.”
Venezuela takes the stage
The big day is here. The assembly is set to begin in an hour, and a frenetic Zepeda bounces around the room checking sound levels, adjusting microphones and finalizing music cues. The stage has been transformed into a tapestry of flags, and the large white columns of Sullivan’s 100-year-old auditorium are wrapped in traditional fabrics.
Ahiled sits toward the front of the room clutching a water bottle. Her voice is tired after rehearsing earlier in the morning, and she’s eager to find some tea and honey. Her hair is more cherry cola than plum, but the reddish hue has grown on her. She’s still channeling Olivia Rodrigo thanks to a black mini skirt that she’s paired with knee-high white socks. Luis sits a few seats away. He’s got a slight cold, but he’s not worried.
A little after 2 p.m. hundreds of students start to filter into the auditorium. As the show’s MC, Ahiled introduces a parade of acts, until it’s her band’s moment. She takes the mic to center stage and Zepeda picks the first few notes of No Se Va on guitar. (He’s their one-man instrumental section.) Soon, Ahiled starts singing quietly, her voice just barely audible over the din of the room. After a few seconds, Luis joins in and his sweet, clear voice seems to surprise the crowd, which cheers and whistles in delight.
The two turn toward one another as they sing the heartfelt melody.
There’s a brief pause in the music, and they transition to Mi Niña Bonita. Antony comes on stage wrapped in the Venezuelan flag. The costume draws enthusiastic cheers. As he raps, Antony unfurls the flag, and holds it up to the crowd. Ahiled grabs a corner, and the two wave it back and forth across the stage. The flag sends a message of resilience and hope to an audience who represent more than 30 different countries.
Later, after school, Ahiled huddles with her friends outside the building. She’s still buzzing from the whole performance, but she says there was one moment that felt particularly special. At the end of Mi Niña Bonita Ahiled saw a group of students waving the Venezuelan flag in the balcony. “It was beautiful,” she says. “I didn’t expect that someone else would have a flag. It felt a little like home because I had my friends and a little bit of my culture.”
The experience has left Ahiled inspired. She plans to spend some of the weekend writing her own music. Maybe even about the teenage dream, one where it really does start to get better.
Elly Fishman is a freelance writer and the author of “Refugee High: Coming of Age in America.” Lauren Frost produced this story for broadcast.